Commentary Magazine


The Age of Extremes, by Eric Hobsbawm

Our Dialectical Century

The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991.
by Eric Hobsbawm.
Pantheon. 640 pp. $35.00.

A “powerful interpretation, . . . great analytical force,” writes Eugene Genovese in a review of this book; “I doubt that we shall get a more penetrating and politically valuable [account].” A “bracing and magisterial work from a rich and acerbic mind,” adds Stanley Hoffmann. “It proves the vitality and importance of [Hobsbawm’s] approach to history.” And Tony Judt: Hobsbawm’s “latest book is a challenging, often brilliant, and always cool and intelligent account of the world we have now inherited.” Even the Economist finds The Age of Extremes “a brilliant study,” whose method pays “vast dividends” and has “laid down the lines on which the debate [over the meaning of the 20th century] will proceed.”

Why have critics, including the distinguished historians quoted above, been so kind? Do they really sympathize with the views of the author, an iconoclastic but nonetheless dreary old British Marxist? Or do they feel an impulse to be gentle with a famous historian who lost so much of himself when the Soviet Union crashed and burned? Ah, the poor academic Marxists and fellow-travelers: they take early retirement now, or skulk to and from their campus digs at odd hours, avoiding your eyes. I have felt sorry for them myself sometimes . . . until I read The Age of Extremes.

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Once upon a time Eric Hobsbawm was a scholarly Ajax, whose cuts and thrusts at shibboleths forced conservatives, liberals, and sometimes even fellow radicals on the defensive. His Industry and Empire (1968) was a classroom standard, and his three-volume history of the “long 19th century,” broken into Ages of Revolution, Capital, and Empire, bristled with data and aperçus. But this swan song of a volume is more useful to pathology than to sociology. Its theories shed more light on the author than they do on his subject, while the facts, about important things, are not so much wrong as absent.

Hobsbawm confesses in the preface that “I have accumulated views and prejudices about [the 20th century] as a contemporary rather than as a scholar,” and “avoided working on the era . . . for most of my career.” He comes to it, he adds, “without the knowledge of the scholarly literature” and is, in short, “what my ancestors would have called a kibbitzer.” While admiring his candor, we are left to ask how, then, he can justify this project at all, especially in the light of his immediately subsequent lament on the lack of historical memory among young people today?

Yet even though his account is, by his own admission, ignorant, impressionistic, and prejudiced, Hobsbawm has nevertheless taken it upon himself to “remember,” for a woefully ignorant public, the most violent century in history. And he assures us that his purpose is nothing less than “to understand and explain why things turned out the way they did, and how they hang together.” But, despite this grand ambition, he repeatedly pronounces himself at a loss. That the democracies organized for war better than bureaucratic Germany is, he writes, a “paradox”; the democratization of modern war is “strange”; the dynamism of postwar capitalism “surprises”; and the fact that so little industry moved to the colonial world is “astonishing.” At the same time, Hobsbawm is cocksure about far more complicated things, like the nature and triumphs of fascism. The result is a bewildering mass of unproved assertions pronounced, as it were, ex cathedra and leaving the impression that their author may not be so far removed after all from the fact-denying deconstructionists he tells us he loathes.

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Hobsbawm begins with the two world wars, which he considers a single conflict spanning 31 years. He disposes of them both in 32 pages, even though they are his prime movers of the century. In the case of World War I, not only are battles and strategy neglected but so are words like liberty and democracy, which do not appear except in the context of disparaging remarks about Woodrow Wilson’s peace plans and the perverse need for democratic governments to whip up their people with propaganda. Instead, Hobsbawm focuses on the question of why the war of 1914 became an unstoppable bloodbath, “a war which could only be totally won or totally lost.” A good question; but the answer—offered without a shred of evidence—is rather less so: competition among private corporations (“Standard Oil, Deutsche Bank, . . . DeBeers Diamond Corporation”) had become limitless.

As for World War II, Hobsbawm clearly blames Hitler for its outbreak, but makes only a passing reference to appeasement, and virtually none at all to the Nazi-Soviet pact or the war aims of the Nazi regime (or, for that matter, those “corporations”). To be sure, he has large themes to develop: the managerial and technological revolutions and the demographic catastrophes born of total war. But is a single sentence—to the effect that the Armenian genocide “was later followed by the better-known Nazi mass-killing of about, five million Jews”—all one need say about the Holocaust? Likewise, Hobsbawm meditates at length about the origins of fascism without once considering the impact of the man Adolf Hitler on the Nazi seizure of power and subsequent acts; rather, he defines fascism as “a response to the danger, indeed the reality, of social revolution and working-class power in general, to the October revolution and Leninism in particular. . . .”

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And so we come to Hobsbawm’s true project in this book, which is to reconstrue Leninism as a tragic mistake that nonetheless had many good consequences and, but for the frightened response to it on the part of the capitalist powers, could have had many more. Thus, the Bolsheviks knew that world revolution could only succeed if they captured Germany; the reason they failed was that World War I ended too soon. On the other hand, the Bolshevik regime did survive in Russia, thanks to the crusading discipline of the Communists (whom Hobsbawm likens to the early Christians and Muslims, and to medieval monastics), to the fact that only the Bolsheviks could hold Russia’s empire together, and to their wisdom in promising land to the peasants. (“Red Terror,” like the Nazi-Soviet pact, falls into the memory hole.)

Hobsbawm does make grudging reference to the human cost of Stalinist industrialization, though he cannot see any alternative to it. What is more important, Stalin’s “achievements” impressed sympathetic foreign observers because “what they were trying to come to terms with was not the actual phenomenon of the USSR but the breakdown of their own economic system, the depth of the failure of Western capitalism.” So all those who willfully lied, covered up, or chose not to see the truth about Stalin in the 30’s are exonerated. Their blindness, like everything else, was capitalism’s fault.

Above all, according to Hobsbawm, the mighty USSR forged by Stalin was the anvil that cracked the Nazi hammer, and was thus—ironically—“the savior of liberal capitalism.” Moreover, the capitalist/Communist alliance of the war years would have survived had Stalin only had his way! Hobsbawm’s sole source for this shocker is an American Communist who quoted Stalin to the effect that “we will not raise the issue of socialism in such a form and manner as to endanger or weaken . . . unity.” From this wisp, Hobsbawm concludes that Stalin had said “a permanent good-bye to world revolution” in favor of his “dream of postwar U.S.-Soviet partnership.”

So, you see, the cold war ought not to have happened; but it did. What then made it so virulent? It was, predictably, the “emotionalism” of democratic electorates, which compelled American leaders to paint the conflict in apocalyptic shades. (So much for Stalin’s militaristic postwar Five-Year Plan and Andrei Zhdanov’s “two-camps” speech, not to mention Mao Zedong’s and Khrushchev’s wild threats and bluster.) Similarly, it was the American threat to intervene against Communism in Italy and France that obliged the USSR to “follow suit” by eliminating non-Communists from its satellite regimes. (So much for the real chronology, which was almost the reverse; nor will history record that the West blockaded East Berlin in 1948, or that the United Nations invaded North Korea in June 1950.) The fevered Americans, stalemated in Europe, then lashed out against the post-colonial wave of revolutions, and this “is what kept the third world a zone of war” and caused some twenty million deaths. (Chief among those war zones, says Hobsbawm, was the Middle East, where Israel was “the main force of disruption.”)

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And where are we now? After the Americans launched the cold war, the capitalist world enjoyed a “Golden Age” of growth from 1945 to 1973—one of those phenomena for which Hobsbawm has “no really satisfactory explanations.” The Soviet system, forged for the purpose of primitive industrialization, could not keep up. Yet even so, the Soviet bloc might have survived—it had the virtue, Hobsbawm says, of insulating its people from the social and cultural breakdowns of the West—if only Leonid Brezhnev, seduced by high, post-OPEC oil prices, had not made the USSR dependent on foreign exchange and thus allowed capitalism to drag the Soviet bloc down with it.

Now, however, the disappearance of the Soviet bogeyman has exposed the terminal diseases besetting the West. We are, as Hobsbawm sees it, in a hell of a mess, for the technological power and acidic individualism unleashed by capitalism now threaten to destroy the planet, while democracy has become a formula for gridlock. The good news, if there is any, is that all of this only confirms the essential Tightness of Karl Marx. True, capitalism has not yet reached the necessary stage, nor spread sufficiently around the world, for the Marxian moment to arrive. But it will, or so Hobsbawm must hope.

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Flanders and Swann, the wry British humorists of the early 60’s, used to introduce their farrago thusly: “The purpose of satire, it has rightly been said, is to strip off the veneer of comforting illusion and cozy half-truth. And our job, as [we] see it, is to put it back again!” Putting back a veneer of comforting illusion and cozy half-truth is just what Eric Hobsbawm has done in this book. Too bad he is no comedian, and the 20th century no laughing matter. And too bad so many of his fellow historians, who should know better, are still ready to stand up and cheer.

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